Saudi Arabia: Continued arbitrary detention of Mohammad al-Rabiah, Issa Al-Nukhaifi after the expiry of their sentence and risk to life of Dr. Mohammad al-Qahtani (joint communication)

The following is based on a communication written by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders to the Government of Saudi Arabia on 30 November 2022. The communication remained confidential for 60 days before being made public, giving the Government time to reply. The Government replied on 30 January 2023, which is currently being translated and will be posted on the UN Special Procedures communications database.

This is a shorter version of the original communication.

Read the full communication


Topic: continued alleged arbitrary detention after the expiry of their sentences of Mr. Mohammad al-Rabiah, Mr. Issa Al-Nukhaifi and risk to life and health of Dr. Mohammad al-Qahtani toward the end of his sentence.

Mr. Mohammad al-Rabiah is a human rights defender working for women’s rights and advocating for the end of male guardianship in Saudi Arabia. He was arrested on 15 May 2018 for his advocacy on women’s right to drive, and sentenced in April 2021 to six years in prison, reduced to four years and six months on appeal. He was the subject of a previous communication about acts of torture that he was allegedly subjected to during his almost two years in pre-trial detention in Jeddah’s Dhahban Prison. This included reports of beatings, electric shocks and being hung upside down, as well as being starved during the first year of his detention.

Mr. Issa Al-Nukhaifi is a human rights defender, anti-corruption activist and lawyer who advocates against the Government’s policy of forced displacement of persons from the borders between Saudi Arabia and Yemen without allegedly receiving adequate compensation. He has also been critical of and protested against Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen. In November 2019, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention stated that Mr. Al-Nukheifi’s detention was arbitrary, and raised particular concern about the reprisals against him for his consultation with the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty.

Dr. Mohammad Al-Qahtani is a human rights defender and a founding member of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), a leading human rights organisation in Saudi Arabia. He was convicted on 9 March 2013 and sentenced to ten years in prison for “refusing to submit to the will of the King,” “incitement,” and “communicating with foreign entities.”

In December 2020, March 2021, and August 2021 Dr. Al-Qahtani reportedly went on a hunger strike jointly with other inmates to reportedly protest on harassment by other prisoners and a lack of family contact, access to books and to essential medication, and protested against the Al-Ha’ir prison administration’s alleged refusal to have him transferred. He was the subject of a press release issued by the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders on 9 November 2022.


The case of Mr. Mohammad Al-Rabiah:

Mr. Al-Rabiah reportedly started a hunger strike in late September 2022 when he learned that he would not be released at the end of his term. He was allegedly informed by prison officials a few days before his scheduled release that the Supreme Court had overturned his sentence, and that he would stand trial again. He remained in detention, was reportedly not informed of any new charges or when the new trial would take place and was reportedly not provided with legal assistance.

The case of Mr. Issa Al-Nukheifi:

On 15 October 2022, Mr. Issa Al-Nukheifi was due to be released at the end of his sentence, instead of which he continued to be held in detention. He has reportedly not received any explanation by prison authorities or other sources for not releasing him on time, and he was reportedly not provided with legal assistance. He reportedly has joined Mr. Al-Rabiah in his hunger strike.

The case of Dr. Mohammad Al-Qahtani:

In May 2022, Dr. Al-Qahtani went on hunger strike to demand transfer from his cell after reportedly being beaten by co-detainees who suffer from mental illness. His request was reportedly not met.

In October 2022, Dr. Al-Qahtani was again attacked by co-detainees who suffer from mental illness, who were reportedly encouraged by another cellmate. His family are fearful that he may continue to be attacked, putting his life in danger, in particular after the death in prison of another human rights defender, Dr. Moussa Al-Garni, in October 2021 in similar circumstances. Dr. Al-Garni was reportedly subjected to beatings and harassment by co-detainees in his cell, possibly including by supporters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), due to his reformist views. Dr. Al-Garni was found dead in his cell with signs of torture and broken ribs.

Dr. Al-Qahtani completed his 10-year prison sentence on 21 November 2022 but remains unreleased. He has reportedly had no access to legal counsel or contact with his family and he has reportedly not been informed in relation to his release.


In the communication, we express our grave concern for the physical and mental health as well as the integrity of the three detained human rights defenders mentioned above.

We are especially concerned about the allegations of holding Dr. Al Qahtani in the same cell with detainees who have been reportedly violent, thereby exposing him to physical attacks and putting his life in danger, in what amounts to ill-treatment by not moving him to a safer place.

We are also concerned that due process has not been followed and that the above-mentioned human rights defenders have not been released upon completing their sentence, in violation of international standards for fair trial. We are particularly concerned by what appears to be an emerging trend to keep human rights defenders in prison after having completed their sentence by overturning their original sentence and ordering new trials without providing them with sufficient information or legal assistance, in violation of the ‘non bis in idem’ principle (the prohibition of double jeopardy).


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